As a rule, I’m not always the biggest fan of ‘issue’ theatre. Drama can be an excellent tool with which to explore and explain complex issues, but often the importance of the message can undermine the theatrical enjoyment of a piece, leaving it flat and preachy. Often. But not always.
Phoenix is a glorious exception to this rule. Created and performed by real-life care-leavers from young-people’s charity The Big House, it tells the story of Latitia, a rage-filled 16-year-old who has been bounced around the care system her entire life.
With few qualifications and a raft of personal issues, Latitia’s only way out seems to be her athletic ability, a source of immense pride, to her and we follow as she attempts to grasp this escape rope despite the inner demons and bad influences holding her back.
The action unfolds across free-standing sets scattered across a cavernous warehouse space, an inspirational stroke which maximises the play’s impact. Physicality is definitely the watchword of Phoenix and it punches through at every level. Latitia’s story is structured around a number of excellently choreographed slow-motion races which demand (and receive) very high standard of movement work from the cast.
By sprinkling these set-pieces across such a large space, the production team draw the audience into this physicality – players appear from dark corners, arguments kick-off mid-crowd and we are dragged from scene to scene with the same uneasy abruptness that Latitia navigates the inside of her own head.
Within the story, each of the actors completely occupies their character, creating performances which are thoroughly convincing and immediately engaging. Given that these characters are drawn from the cast’s own true-life stories this is perhaps understandable but the level of focus, intensity and precision that each actor displays would be impressive in professionals twice their age.
There’s no real weak links in this cast but a couple of performances deserve especial recognition. Chief among these is Jasmine Jobson as Latitia - an angry coiled-spring of a girl, hurt and hair-triggered to lash out at the world. It’d be easy to play this character as one-note disaffected youth but Jobson invests her with a beautiful range of emotion, capable of explosive flare-ups but also, when shown kindness, of split-second displays of the sweet, vulnerable little girl inside the shell.
Phoenix is Latitia’s story and the weight of the piece rests largely on her but it’s a burden she carries with grace. She may not be a ‘nice’ character but from the moment she starts speaking, you care for and root for her, creating a personal investment from the word ‘go’.
Of the supporting performances, my attention was most grabbed by Harry Rafferty as Latitia’s boyfriend Mani and Laura Isherwood as her mum, Julie. Rafferty plays Mani with an odiously-swaggering charisma which is both attractive and frightening whilst Isherwood, though appearing only briefly, has such excellent chemistry with her on-stage daughter that their final scene together is incredibly touching.
Phoenix is theatre without pose or pretension, just passion, and it’s extremely exciting for it. Tackling real issues with honesty and humour, this is the perfect antidote to West End seasonal fluff, an excellent example of what London Fringe theatre is all about and the best reason to spend 90 minutes in a warehouse that I can think of.